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Mine safety probe

Gov. Joe Manchin on Monday appointed one of the nation’s foremost mine safety experts to oversee a state probe of last week’s disaster at the Sago Mine.

Manchin said Marion County native Davitt McAteer would also study broader issues and propose wholesale changes to make the state’s mines safer.

“These 12 lives will not be lost in vain,” Manchin said during a Capitol news conference.

Manchin and McAteer promised to hold public hearings as part of the investigation, and to issue a report by July 1.

“We will pursue every lead,” said McAteer, who was head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. “We will follow every avenue of inquiry, and we will take every step necessary to find the problems and to fix those problems.”

At the same time, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., announced Monday that the Senate would hold the first hearing on the Sago Mine disaster next week in Washington, D.C.

Byrd said the Jan. 19 hearing, before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, would include federal and state mine safety officials, labor and business representatives and academic experts in mine safety. Byrd worked with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, to schedule the hearing.

“The families of the Sago miners deserve to know what happened in that mine,” Byrd said. “Just as importantly, miners and their families across this country want to know that steps are being taken to prevent others from ever experiencing such pain.”

Byrd added that, “There are tough questions to be asked of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“Is enforcement of coal mining regulations tough enough? Are the regulations on the books today current enough to handle the challenges posed by 21st century coal mining? Are mine hazards being minimized? These and other issues demand scrutiny, and the miners’ families deserve the answers,” Byrd said. “I will work in the Senate to get the truth.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has also called for a series of Senate hearings on the broader mine safety issues.

At the same time, Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees the Department of Labor, asked Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to turn over all correspondence and documents — including citations and inspectors’ notes — that discuss the Sago Mine.

“Gathering this information is critical to learning what we must do to prevent another tragedy,” Miller said in a news release.

In Charleston, Manchin announced his choice of McAteer for the state investigation just before leaving to attend the visitation for another of the 12 victims of the Sago Mine disaster. Two funerals are scheduled for today.

Manchin said McAteer would serve as the governor’s personal adviser on the investigation. McAteer, a vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University, will also serve as a consultant to the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, which is performing the state’s disaster investigation.

Manchin said McAteer would work with MSHA, and that federal officials would take part in the state’s public hearing.

But Bob Friend, a deputy assistant secretary of Labor for MSHA, said federal officials have not yet called their own public hearing — a move that would give MSHA additional investigatory powers, such as subpoenaing witnesses and documents.

“That determination will be made at a later date,” Friend said after Monday’s news conference.

Friend also said that the public should not expect MSHA to produce its final investigation report by July 1, the date by which McAteer promised to deliver his report to Manchin.

After the Sept. 23, 2001, explosions that killed 13 miners at an Alabama coal mine, MSHA did not release its final report until Jan. 24, 2003.

Following the Jan. 22, 2003, deaths of three workers at CONSOL Energy’s McElroy Mine near Moundsville, MSHA did not release its report until Dec. 2, 2003.

In a news release, acting MSHA chief David Dye called the probe a “joint investigation” that would include a “joint public hearing.”

“West Virginia has its own mine safety inspection and enforcement agency, and we want to coordinate closely to ensure that our investigation is thorough and complete,” Dye said.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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